Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Traipsing in Turkey Part - I, Cappadocia

Cappadocia - Rock Cut Cave Dwellings, Goreme

Turkey, an evocative name. A country that for many travelers spells history, romance and the mystique of the East in equal measure.
Scenic, High Cave Dwelling 
Straddling the cross roads of Europe and Asia, Turkey is an enticing blend of tradition and modernity, an historic land. It has some of the earliest Roman and Christian cave settlements, the center of the Byzantine Empire and later was the seat of the powerful Ottoman Empire, that in the 17th century, under Suleiman the Magnificent, was one of the most powerful states in the world – a multinational, multilingual empire, stretching from Southeast Europe to Western Asia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Its capital was Constantinople, the present day Istanbul which still remains the cultural and business hub of the country while the administrative capital. Cappadocia in Anatolia is an old volcanic region which is famous for its underground cities, many of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. 

Volcanic Rock Formations, Cappadocia

The Bakshis at Goreme

The Bakshis' out on their travels once again, accompanied by the author's sister Kavita and her son Akshay, made a stop in Turkey, primarily to visit Istanbul and Cappadocia. 
Flying into Istanbul on Turkish Airways one decided to proceed first to Cappadocia after only a couple of days in the city, and leave the important tasks of site seeing and shopping in Istanbul for the return visit, as this would avoid having to store the ladies' shopping in Istanbul while we explored Cappadocia. Our exploits in Istanbul would be covered in part-2 of this blog. 

An old Christian Cave Monastery

The traveller has a choice of transport modes for the journey. Comfortable overnight buses run to Neveshir or Kayseri, there is also a train that travels this route; while Turkish Airlines and a host of others offer great air fares to Cappadocia. Competitive air fares normally ensure that this is the most popular form of travel, as for a minimal 'add - on' one ends up saving over 8 to 10 hours of journey time. 

Bosporus Bridge, Istanbul

We got a good deal from Pegasus Airlines which operates out of Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul's second Airport. Please check on the internet for the best fares as there are many airlines and often even Turkish Airlines fares are competitive, Turkish has the advantage of flying out of and into Ataturk Airport, which is nearer and easier to access from central Istanbul. 

Goreme Town, Cappadocia
The taxi ride to Sabiha Gokcen crosses the lovely Bosporus Bridge that links Asia and Europe. 
Travellers are advised to keep adequate time in hand to reach this airport as there can be many traffic jams en-route, specially on the Bridge, and, also that the secondary airport is quite distant. Our flight got us to Kayseri in an hour or so where we were met by our taxi ride to Goreme, arguably the most important town of tourist interest in Cappadocia.

Mithra Cave Hotel
In Goreme, earlier we had been in touch with Mr. Mustafa of Aydinli Cave Hotel regarding reservations [http://www.thecavehotel.com/] . He was extremely prompt in answering emails and also very helpful. As the Aydinli Cave Hotel was full, he booked us into Mithra Cave Hotel [http://www.mithracave.com/] which was being managed by them.
Kavita & Gurmeet at Mithra
In the author's opinion the Mithra was an even better hotel than the Aydinli as it was located higher, has better views and better rooms. The Cave rooms were nice with interesting corners and alcoves.
Our Suite at Mithra

Cave Bathroom

Both our suites were cut into the volcanic rock and were well furnished with great ethnic touches, the bathrooms, too, were well fitted out with flower blooming in pots outside. 

Mr. Mustafa and his family were extremely friendly and hospitable with Mr. Mustafa and his son Cem going out their way to make us comfortable and arrange all site seeing and ballooning activities.
Ensconced in our cozy suites we set out to explore Goreme and its surrounds. 

Gurmeet in Cave Room
The knowledgeable Cem was our guide and companion for the next three days, he drove us around in his vehicle, an arrangement that was both comfortable and reasonably priced.
Goreme Open Air Museum, Churches

The Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is normally the first stop for most visitors to the town. We were no exception and one must say that it is an absolute delight, even for those not interested in history and monuments.

Cave Churches Goreme Museum
The museum comprises of a group of rock-cut, frescoed churches dating mainly from the 9th to the 11th centuries that form a monastic complex complete with residences, refectories, store rooms, kitchens and fine rock-cut dining tables. 

Restored Cave Church Interior

There are signs and evidence that many of these rock buildings were also occupied by early Christians many millennia before the 9th century. This is evident from the Frescoes that can be segregated into Pre and Post-Iconoclastic periods. The older Frescoes rely entirely on symbolism to communicate their messages; this is a result of the early church's disapproval of the portrayal of the human form in religious art; similar to rules adopted by Islam later. 

Cave Church-Kavita, Gurmeet, Anil and Akshay  
These works which postdate the resolution of the Iconoclastic controversy (9th Century), often look simple in comparison to later works as they are much more figurative. 

Later Church Frescoes
It is interesting to compare Frescos from different eras and realize that both styles are telling the same stories of Christ and the Saints.
'Dark Church' Entry

As we were visiting in June there was no crowding and we could visit and appreciate the area and monuments at leisure. Travellers are warned that in the peak season in August and September there are hordes of tourists; visits to the individual churches then, are restricted to five minutes, barely enough time to appreciate them, definitely avoidable. 

Volcanic Rock Formations, Valley View

The lovely Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church) is worth visiting even though there is an extra fee. 
We also headed uphill to visit the lesser known Aynalı Kilise (Mirror Church) which lies off the road towards Ortahisar. The stiff uphill walk is worth it as the rock cut church is very impressive. An added benefit for the author, however, was the great view of valleys and rock formations that can be seen from this vantage point.

Uçhisar Castle and Caves, Goreme

We went on to visit Uçhisar Castle, not really a castle but a huge tenement cut into the volcanic rock. This dominates the landscape for miles around. The view from the castle summit down the Pigeon Valley to Göreme is spectacular. Cars can only go a part of the way and visitors have to walk up a stiff incline to get to the top. While the author did manage to huff and puff his way to the top, it is not recommended for the unfit.

Cappadocia Breakfast Buffet

The next morning after an excellent Cappadocian Breakfast which featured a lot of fruit preserves, olives, fresh salad, local cheese and breads accompanied by excellent coffee; we set out with Fatih to explore the underground city of Derinkuyu. 

Derinkuyu Underground City, Cappadocia

There are more than 100 underground “cities” in Cappadocia where early medieval Christians took refuge from Arab invaders. Derinkuyu, Kaymaklı, Özluce, Özkonak, Mazıköy and Gaziemir are the most popular. These cities occupy many levels underground and are set up for daily life, with churches, kitchens, wineries, stores, stables and even a school.

70 year old Guide

We met a delightful 70 year old sprightly gentleman, impeccably turned out, who acts a guide to the area's underground cities. He took us through the various underground levels with great enthusiasm and energy which belied his age. Extremely knowledgeable, he was always prepared with a witty discourse or story about the city which he always prefaced with, "Ladies and Gentlemen". 
Low Narrow Passages

When exploring the underground city, one realised that how good nutrition had made humankind increase in both height and girth! The passages and doorways in the underground warren were clearly designed for slim people not over 5 feet in height. While Gurmeet had no problems, the generously proportioned author had some difficulty negotiating these tight passages. 

Guide, Kavita, Gurmeet, Author - Underground 

While these cities were probably good as refuges for a short while, one has doubts as to if people could stay inside these claustrophobic spaces for extended periods.

We visited Kaymakli as well, a word to the wise, however, while all cities may be interesting; one should follow the dictum, "If you have seen one underground city, you have seen them all". Agreed that visiting one underground city is almost mandatory, save time and do not visit another. There are many other places to visit and things to do in Cappadocia. 

Red River Banks Avanos

We set out to visit the town of Avanos is set on the banks of the Kizilirmak, the Red River, which gets its name from the clay that it deposits. 

Zelve Monastery Complex, Cappadocia
En-route we took a short detour to see the Zelve monastery complex, While Lacking the elaborate frescoes of Göreme there are marked highlights, notably the Fish and Grape churches and many rooms and passages to explore. Zelve was inhabited until quite recently but was abandoned due to erosion and weathering; you can almost see the place crumbling before your eyes. There's some element of risk involved in exploring too enthusiastically, so care is advised. 

Ladies making traditional bread

Cappadocia Countryside
One afternoon, we drove out into the country side visiting traditional villages. It was a relaxed outing seeing how the common people live and also observe ladies producing the traditional Turkish bread in communal ovens. 

Towns, Mosques and Fields, Cappadocia
The country side, being volcanic soil, is generally earth tones of browns and reds with patches of cultivated green fields and orchards.
Hot Air Ballooning
Hot Air Ballooning

Ballooning is one of the highlights of Cappadocia, with Goreme being its epicenter. It boasts of one of the largest conglomerations in the world of Hot Air Balloons, for tourists. 

Hot Air Balloons Readying for Flight
In season, there are over 200 flights a day run by over 20 operators, offering the visitors a wide choice of flights of different durations, exclusivity or luxury levels. It is an experience that should not be missed as it is absolutely beautiful and absorbing. Be warned that you’ll need to be up with the larks to indulge in this adventure, which is not cheap either. Don’t automatically opt for the cheapest though, since the most experienced pilots work for the more exclusive outfits, and these have fewer passengers to each Balloon Basket.

Butterfly Balloons Preparing for Flight

Mr. Mustafa, with his customary efficiency has booked us with Butterfly Balloons, one of the best operators of Ballooning flights. Gurmeet, with a fear of heights, and Akshay, not wanting to make such an early start, dropped out and it was only Kavita my sister and I, who finally decided to indulge.
A very early pick-up at 5:00 am in the morning took us to the Butterfly office where a light repast and hot beverages awaited the group.

Capt. Mustafa, Kavita and Author Ballooning

We were divided into various groups of 12 people each and assigned to different captains. Ours was Captain Mustafa (probably one of the most common names in Turkey), the chief pilot of Butterfly Balloons. A van ride of about 30 minutes took us to the starting point of our adventure where we were explained the basics of Hot Air Ballooning and then saw the initial set-up for flight. 
Roaring Burners

It was a great experience watching the Captains handling the roaring burners which slowly filled up the huge envelopes of the Balloons with hot air and these then came erect with the passenger baskets attached below, tethered with various ropes to hold them down. 

Pre-Flight State
We were helped into the baskets, a sustained roar and long flames from the burners, and Captain Mustafa gave the order to cast of the tethering ropes.
We took to the sky slowly, getting a bird’s-eye view of various other Balloons getting ready to take flight. 

Cappadocia Landscape from a Hot Air Balloon

As we rose higher the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia, created by the action of wind and rain eating into the volcanic stuff poured out by volcanoes eons ago, became visible, we could also observe dozens of other Hot Air Balloons in the sky. 

Rock Formations and Caves
Captain Mustafa, pointed out various landmarks and features, at times floating down into valleys within touching distance of the caves and spectacular rock formations and then soaring out over ridges with hardly a few meters between the basket and the rocky landscape. 

Aerial Views of Balloons

We then floated over Goreme getting a lovely aerial view. 
It was also a treat to float noiselessly, taking in ever changing vistas, with a multitude of different hued Balloons scattered all over the sky at various levels. Absolutely spectacular!.
View from our Balloon - Goreme Town

Our Balloon and Basket reflected in another

We came into land after about 75 minutes. The wind had got up by then and the landing zone was fairly small, making the landing somewhat tricky. We saw another Balloon, landing before us, dragging its basket and then upturning it. Luckily, its passengers while shaken, seemed unhurt. 
Tricky Landing

We landed with a bump and the wind caught us, dragging us forward. However, the Butterfly support team was alert and about 5 of them threw themselves on the ropes of the basket while Captain Mustafa did an emergency deflation of the Hot Air envelope. The basket stayed upright. 
Post Landing Champagne Toast
After Landing
As is customary, champagne was popped and glasses handed out along with the Balloon flight certificates. Toasts drunk, the party was dropped back to the respective hotels. An unforgettable experience overall. 


Kayseri Prayer Rug
Turkey is known for Carpets. While most visitors to Turkey would end up buying carpets in Istanbul or Ankara, the famous Anatolian carpets are produced in and around Kayseri, which has been famous as a carpet making center for centuries. Intricate prayer rugs are collectors favorites.

Girl Weaving Carpet - Kayseri

Carpets and Kilims of Kayseri are woven mostly by girls and ladies, from various Threads, Silk, Wool and Cotton and combinations of the same. These can be geometrical or with floral patterns in reds, blues and pastels using natural dyes. The better ones can be very intricate and expensive. 

Buying from workshops in Kayseri is far cheaper than prices prevalent in the big carpet emporiums at Istanbul and arguably the chances of cheap machine made carpets being passed of as 'Hand Knotted' are lesser here with manufacturers rather than with some unscrupulous traders in big cities. 

Double Knotted Wool Rug - Kayseri

Shop around, preferably with someone knowledgeable. Once you like some carpet of kilim, polite bargaining is the norm and is almost expected. It can be a nice way to spend a few hours and also acquire a family heirloom. Beware of guides, drivers and others directing you to the "Best Place" for carpets as invariably their hefty commissions will be added to your purchase price.   

Potters Wheel
The Red River clay has provided Avanos with pottery for centuries and the town is still dominated by this industry. There are numerous shops and workshops selling plain and decorated pots and plates and you can watch the potters at work using kick wheels, the design of which has remained unchanged for generations. These of course are showpieces for the tourists' delectation; almost all workshops use modern electricity driven machinery. 

 Handmade and Painted Pottery - Avanos

The best pottery pieces are cast and decorated by hand and can be quite expensive. 

More Handmade Pottery

If you can negotiate around the all pervasive 'Guides Commission', good pottery here is much cheaper than in the famous shops in the Grand Bazzar at Istanbul. Most good workshops will properly pack and ship your purchases home, keeping your baggage allowance free for lighter purchases. Pottery is heavy.

Food and Entertainment

Eating out in Goreme 
There are a few night clubs in Goreme and some restaurants offer live Turkish music. However, those looking for frenetic night life would be better served in Istanbul. We did not try out any of the night spots. Liquor prices are high in Turkey, except for beer, which is reasonable. Turkish wine tends to be fruity and is not generally good value.
Seten Anatolian Restaurant
The first evening, as my sister and I had to make a very early start next morning, we dined out at the Seten Anatolian Cuisine Restaurant, which was next door to our hotel. It's fancy restaurant, with good service and prices to match. The food, however, while being perfectly palatable, did not stand out in any way and did not in any way justify this restaurant's ratings or prices. Overrated.

Orient Restaurant

The second night, after a few well deserved sun downers we went out to The Orient Restaurant which had been highly recommended, it had good ambiance and service. The food was good but the signature dish of Testi Kebab, that's Meat and Vegetables slow cooked in a sealed earthenware pot, was just about OK. 

Testi Kebab

Other Turkish dishes Mezzes, Kebabs and Pide bread were better. The Steak which our nephew tried was very good. The restaurant offers a good selection of Turkish wine, which tends to be fruity, a good accompaniment to the mildly spiced Turkish food. Worth a visit and enjoyable, albeit pricey. 
Top-Deck Cave Restaurant

The final night we dined out at the Top-deck Cave Restaurant. Contrary to its name its not on any top deck but in a cave on the ground floor. Nice ambiance with both table and traditional floor seating. Its served the best food that we had had in Goreme. The Mezzes were notably good and varied. 

Adyena Kebab, Top-deck Restaurant
Most dishes, specially the lamb and desserts were excellent and were served in generous portion sizes. The prices, while not cheap were good value. Highly recommended but reserve well in advance as they have limited seating. 

Roadside Eating - Manti

The best part of eating out, however, was the small family run eateries that we patronized during the day. 
Roadside eating - Borek
These unpretentious establishments served a limited menu of local dishes which were invariably tasty and excellent value. 

Among the more notable Anatolian dishes are, 

A variety of Anatolian Mezze

Mezze - Mezzes are little dishes, or appetizers. Common to all cuisines in the Levant and Mediterranean, these include such favorites like eggplant dip, halloumi, calamari, hummus, hot pepper paste with walnuts, kalamata olives, pilaki and octopus, among many others. Each region has its own offering of Mezzes, so ask to try some that are unique to Cappadocia. A great start to any meal. Light eaters can make a meal tasting various Mezze dishes scooped up with the delicious Turkish flat bread. 

Woman hand making Manti

Manti – These are miniature dumplings containing some variety of minced meat or potato, which is then folded up in dough and either boiled or steamed and covered with a generous dollop of yogurt, melted butter and garlic, with a little red pepper sprinkled on top. The meal originated near modern Mongolia and spread throughout Central Asia by migrating nomads, but were made famous in Kayseri. They look similar to ravioli.
Testi Kebab

Testi Kebab – Probably the most famous must-try food for tourists in Cappadocia. It is totally a innovation for tourists as no Turkish home serves it. Probably a variation of Guvec, Testi Kebab is a mixture of meat and vegetables layered into a clay pot with spices. Its then sealed with bread dough and cooked over a slow fire. The pot is broken open at your table and served steaming hot with rice or bread. Overratted.

Güveç — Another quintessentially Capadoccian meal, the Turkish güveç is a stew-like dish usually containing garlic, onions, eggplant and mushrooms, as well as some kind of meat, which are all baked together in a special earthenware dish. In Cappadocia it comes in lamb, chicken and beef varieties.
Cappadocian Lahmacun - Delicious

Lahmacun – These are an Anatolian special. A type of Pide, often referred to as Turkish pizza. These comprise of a soft oval of thin slightly crisped dough topped with spicy sauce and mince meat, and served with greens and a lemon slice. You basically pile everything you can onto the face of the dough and roll it up like a scroll. Lahmacun are inexpensive and deliciously addicting, and you’ll find them throughout Cappadocia.

Pide — Turkey’s answer to the pizza looks is a flat bread with a variety of fillings held in by the outer crust and often topped with an egg. Varieties include the Kaşarlı Pide (with cheese), Karasık Pide (mixed vegetables, ground beef and cheese), Mantarlı Pide (mushrooms and cheese), Sucuk Pide (with Turkish Pepperoni), Kusbaşı Pide (chunks of beef with cheese) and Kiymalı Pide (ground beef mixed with chopped tomato, onion, and green pepper).

Paşa Bonfile Sarma
Paşa Bonfile Sarma (Rolled Sultan Steak) – Another great meal for carnivores, this Ottoman specialty is grilled steak stuffed with cheese and pine nuts.
Grape Leaves Dolma
Capsicum Sarma

Sarma — The term ‘sarma’, referred to interchangeably as ‘dolma’, encompasses a variety of finger foods that in some way involve some sort of filling in some sort of vegetable wrap. This includes stuffed capsicum, stuffed eggplant, etc. Generally, however, the words apply to stuffed grape leaves. These look like stubby, wet, loosely-rolled green cigars, and they are delicious. They come in both vegetable and meat filled varieties.

Sinfully Rich Kunefe

Künefe – A rich Anatolian dessert made from shredded wheat, honey, melted cheese, and pistachios. Similar to the Indian "Halwa".

Sultan Honey Bread

Ballı Padişah Ekmeği (Sultan Honey Bread) –Dough, shaped into an oval with raised edges, covered it with a raw egg, honey, and walnuts and then baked. An unique delicious dessert. 

Cappadocia Landscape - Fantastic Rock Shapes

After 3 memorable nights in Cappadocia, we had an early breakfast, hosted by the kind Mustafa family at the Aydinli Cave Hotel and set out for Kayseri to catch our Pegasus Air Flight to Istanbul. We viewed the rugged and beautiful Cappadocian landscape en-route, saw the Balloons in the air, and promised ourselves that we would return to enjoy this attractive area once more. We were already looking forward to our sojourn in Istanbul......but that is a story for the next blog.

Hot Air Balloons Peacefully Floating over Cappadocia